It’s January, the month of new beginnings. You’ve made your New Year’s resolutions, and maybe, just maybe, one of them involves writing. Maybe you resolved to write a novel. An entire novel. And maybe this time you’re actually going to do it. So you sit down in front of a word processor with your fantastic new idea and start tallying up the word count.
Not so fast. Before you get carried away, you should take a minute to set yourself up for success in your novel-writing endeavor.
First, you need an outline. If you don’t have one yet, check out my post on how to quickly create one. It doesn’t need to be complicated or too in-depth. But it should provide direction for your novel so that you don’t end up wandering aimlessly, or not moving forward at all.
Your outline is the skeleton of your story. You want it to be great; unfortunately, it isn’t. Not yet. You won’t be able to see its flaws, but they will be there nonetheless. Plot holes you didn’t consider. Flat/useless characters you thought were important. Exciting sequences that shouldn’t happen so rapidly. Your outline will be full of little errors and slip ups that you won’t notice, and maybe your readers won’t notice them either. But each of those mistakes is a missed opportunity for improvement. Also, a small flaw in your outline could morph into a huge muse-killing flaw in the final product. Sound bad? It is. Once you’ve written your draft, outlining errors are difficult and time consuming to fix. So how can you find them before it’s too late?
You can’t. Not on your own. Your mind has created the outline the way it is, and it can’t detect its own flaws. You need a fresh set of eyes.
Finding Someone to Critique Your Outline
No, no, no.
I want you to share your skeletal, undeveloped, sensitive outline with someone. Yes, I realize that other people are scary. Yes, I realize that your outline isn’t ever supposed to be presented to another human. But you owe this to your story, your New Year’s resolution, and to yourself.
But…your outline is a mess. It only makes sense to you (and only on a good day at that.) How can you explain it to someone else?
Keep it simple. Rewrite (or write) it in a bulleted list, called a chapter outline. It should look something like this:
Chapter 1: Jack meets Jill.
Chapter 2: They run up a hill.
If your chapters have several sub-scenes, then put those in the list too. If you’re not sure what transpires in all of your chapters, or any of them, then make a more general outline:
Jack meets Jill.
They run up a hill
Something happens and they fall.
Your outline doesn’t have to include everything. It just needs to give your brainstorm partners an idea of what your book is about and how the plot progresses.
But maybe you don’t know any writers. Maybe your friends don’t write much, or at all. Where are you going to find someone to help you? The Internet is a wonderful thing. Join a writing forum. Post a topic called “Outline: opinions wanted.” Everyone likes to share their opinion.
Once you’ve taken the leap and enlisted someone to inspect your outline, you need to help them help you. Determine what you want help with. If you’re uncertain, start with this list:
- Character motivation
Why do the characters do what they do on a chapter-by-chapter basis?
- Scene significance
Does every chapter have a purpose in the overall scheme of things? Can you identify each chapter’s role in the story?
Does something seem like it happens too quickly? Not quickly enough? When your readers view the whole outline, they should be able to distinguish between major and minor events. Do the major ones take up enough time? Do the minor ones distract from the major arc of the story?
Are there any clichés in your story line? People coming back from the dead? Evil villain monologuing while your hero escapes? The hero getting captured when he should have been shot and killed? We’ve all seen clichés; that’s what makes the cliché boring, predictable, and lame.
- Plot holes
A plot hole is anything in an outline that doesn’t make sense. Characters who are in two places. A gun in one scene that your hero doesn’t have in another scene. Plot holes are black and dark and evil. If you don’t rat them all out now, you’ll have problems later on.
The best question your critique partners can answer is this: would you read this story? All except an exemplary partner would say yes, because they’re nice and they like you, and crushing your hopes and dreams wasn’t on their to-do list when they got up in the morning. You have to probe. You need to be absolutely sure that your story sounds exciting and interesting to other people, and not just yourself.
That should get the discussion started, but ask some questions specific to your story too. Spend time developing questions for your critique partners; after all, you’re asking them to donate their time. It’s only fair.
Handling the Critique Session
Once you’ve sent off your outline and your list of questions, it’s time to communicate. If you can set up a video chat or phone call, that’s best. If not, stick to the forum topic you created. Or maybe e-mail. It all works.
Since your critique partners have only seen your outline, they’ll probably feel like they don’t understand enough to ask intelligent questions. It will be your job to initiate the conversation. Encourage them to ask stupid questions and make stupid suggestions. And when they start expressing ideas or concerns, consider all of them—even if you already know why a new idea wouldn’t work in your story, or that a “plot hole” they pointed out isn’t a plot hole. Give each new idea a few minutes of thought. If it won’t work, try to make it work. Of course, you (probably) won’t use every suggestion, but you might. Even if you don’t, contemplating bad ideas will get your mind developing good ideas.
Remember, the most important rule of brainstorming is this: don’t be defensive. Put everything on the line, and then let your critique partners rip into it. If they find something wrong with your story, work with them to fix it. Don’t try to convince them that the problem doesn’t exist.
Right now I have a manuscript in my backpack the length of The Two Towers which is almost publishable. Unfortunately, it contains one plot hole so impossible to edit out that my poor book won’t ever see the press. I had THREE people point out the weakness. But did I listen? No. And now I’m stuck with a year’s worth of almost-publishable material rotting in a backpack far, far from the light of day.
Listen to your critique partners. For me. Please.
Lastly, don’t waste precious time explaining every subplot and subtext, or your critique partners won’t ever get a chance to speak. Your novel is complicated, and you don’t even remember all the important details; there is no way they will. Let them voice their suggestions and try to work with what they bring. When their ideas don’t align with your story, be creative. If you still can’t get an idea to stick, move on.
Writing the Novel
Once you’re convinced that your outline is fantastic, start writing. Don’t forget, though, that the people who have helped you this far could be valuable critique partners later on. You want to keep your relationship with them fresh. Keep them updated with what’s going on in your story. You want (need) to invest time back into them. Offer to look at an outline, or a scene, or maybe help them brainstorm.
Your relationship with your new writing friend might be the difference between another half-finished draft or a completed novel. Value it accordingly.